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Jacob and Laban: How Not To Do Healthcare

A d’var Torah for Parashat Vayetze by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

A few months ago I received a letter from my health insurance company telling me that they were cancelling my insurance plan, and that as of December 31 I would have to find new coverage. I was not alone in this scenario, as this particular company cancelled plans in several counties in my state. The reason, as the letter stated, was “instability in the market.”

As a rabbi of a smaller congregation, I need to find my insurance either through the health exchange or the individual market. I found my current plan on the individual market last year, as it seemed like the best fit for my family. But with the current administration withholding the subsidies that offset the costs for low-income beneficiaries, and with the general threats directed at the Affordable Care Act, the market for insurance has become more volatile. Even now, as I shop for plans in the open enrollment period, I see that premiums have risen significantly.

The Torah portion this week, Vayetze, is full of economic trickery. Jacob, fresh from dressing up like his older brother in order to steal the blessing from his visually impaired father, sets off to the family homeland of Haran in order to find his family and a wife. His kinsman Laban brings him in and promises his daughter Rachel in exchange for seven year’s work. When Laban tricks him into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah, Jacob insists he will work another seven years. When that time is up, he is allowed to marry Rachel.

Jacob gets revenge of a sort when he makes a deal for his “wages”—striking a bargain for sheep and goats of a particular coloring. After Laban tries to hide these, Jacob breeds new ones using the healthiest animals, thus getting rich off of Laban. The story is also full of stolen idols, trading sex for mandrakes, and middle-of-the-night escapes.

One the one hand, this story reads like farce—there are so many double-dealings, falsehoods, and tricks that it becomes comical. But the dark side of the story is this perpetual vying to get the upper hand, to exploit the labor of the other, to be dishonest in business dealings. And while Jacob and Laban in the end form a truce of sorts, there is a sense that trust has been broken permanently. They build a pillar, share a sacrificial meal, and promise to never have anything to do with the other again.

I feel like I am stuck in Jacob and Laban’s universe during this period as I look over the insurance market. Is this really the best way to provide health care? Buying into for-profit companies who in turn pay for one’s medical expenses? Companies which would prefer to maximize profit by minimizing risk, and when the “instability” gets too much they just pull out of the market leaving “customers” like me having to go elsewhere? It feels like I have to contend with those who, like Jacob and Laban, are acting only out of their own self-interest, without concern for the real needs of the other.

There is, however, a hint of another way in this portion. In the beginning of Jacob’s journey to Haran, he stops to sleep for the night and has his famous vision of a ladder with angels moving up and down, and God promising to protect him. When he awakes he is amazed at his vision, and as he sets off to continue his journey he says, “If God remains with me and protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house—Adonai shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

On the one hand it sounds presumptuous—Jacob will only stand by God if he gets what he is asking for. On the other, Jacob is only asking for simple things: food, clothing, safety, and security. Indeed, isn’t this what we all want and deserve? And in our day, access to affordable health care is a way we manifest “safety” and “security.” Jacob commits to God; God commits to Jacob; even if there is conflict, they know they can’t turn away from each other forever.

Too often we find ourselves living out the push and pull of Jacob and Laban, each striving for dominance over the other. What we really need to do is hear the words of Jacob before he meets Laban, when he is able to articulate a vison of fundamental human needs. It should be the right of all to have these, and the responsibility of our society to set up a system that provides them. Because, unlike Jacob and Laban, we must raise up, rather than push down, our fellow members of society.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein serves Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, WA. He currently serves as President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. He blogs regularly at www.rabbi360.com, and produces a weekly podcast, Torah tl;dr.

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